Healthcare is among the most potential sectors in Bangladesh. While Bangladesh, a country of 160 million population (according to the latest census), has achieved incredible feat in several areas of healthcare including drastic fall of child mortality rate (0.24%), but the country struggles big time when it comes to innovation in delivering healthcare, tackling nutritional problem, lack of knowledge about health and nutrition, and general health care problems. The country still remains among the 57 countries recognized by WHO in 2006 for having a severe scarcity of trained medical professionals. According to WHO, for every 1000 people in Bangladesh, there are only 0.3 doctors and 0.3 nurses.
These are the problem, among others like buying medicines online when you are busy, having hygiene products and contraceptives with confidentiality that you otherwise feel awkward to buy in person, Bhalo Thakun, a part health-tech and part ecommerce startup, based in Dhaka aims to fix.
Recently we spoke to the co-founder and CEO of Bhalo Thakun, Mr. Tawhidur Rahman, a successful entrepreneur himself who has the experience of building a tech company like Softograph from ground up, about Bhalo Thakun, services it offers, how it works, growth, team, challenges and competition in the market given that there are a couple other players in the sector and future plan including expansion beyond Dhaka. Here are lightly edited transcripts of our conversation.
What is Bhalo Thakun? You are part online dispensary and then you have a content aspect to it where you give tips and advice on healthy living. How do you put these two different aspects together?
Bhalo Thakun is a well-being service provider for your family. We are not an online dispensary or pharmacy trying to sell you products. We focus on providing our customers with preventive measures so that they don’t get sick in the first place. For that matter, we provide you advice, give you suggestion so that you and your family remain well. Despite that, if you need medicines, we want to help you get them conveniently by offering products online.
Our target is to help people to live a better and healthy life.
The idea originally came from Affan Mahmud., one of the co-founders of Bhalo Thakun and an accomplished entrepreneur himself [cue: you may check out our interview with Mr. Affan Mahmud]. He had some personal experiences regarding health care which led to the original idea of Bhalo Thakun. His father passed away from cancer after suffering for quite some time.
He remembers the nights after nights that he had to spend in hospital and the times when there was no avenue from where he could seek help or educate himself on necessary aspects of cancer in Bangladesh.
Those were not the days of facebook or ecommerce. Finding suggestions for a cancer patient, getting recommendations and tips, finding help locally was close to impossible from any online forum.
That’s when he came up with the idea of building a platform which will be providing well-being, not for one but the whole family. It doesn’t necessarily need to be only an online store selling well-being products.
Although we have started with that service, we aim to be a platform where you can consult about your problem, ask questions, get answered,share your problems and also study about things that you need to know about the health of you and your family.
And once you came up with the idea, how did you validate the need for this service in the market?
Dhaka is a very congested city with unbearable traffic. You are probably late for every meeting every day unless you are a really good planner. We are in a constant rush in order to make up for the lost time.
So when you need a healthcare product or medicine and you don’t have the time or it’s too time consuming to get it braving traffic, would not you like to have an alternative? From a commercial point of view, that’s one of the reasons we felt that there is a need for purchasing medicine conveniently right from your desk.
Medicine is a very personal product. Also, there are hygiene products and contraceptives that people still feel a bit uncomfortable buying from a physical pharmacy.
We ran a survey in Dhaka and found interesting insights. For example, people usually avoid buying personal products from stores near their residences or where people know/recognize them, instead they go to places to buy these products, where they are relatively unknown to the salespeople.
There are also other conveniences that you can find from Bhalo Thakun. We have recently introduced scheduled orders system which allows you to pre-schedule your medicine orders. It ensures a great deal of convenience to consumers who have to take a medicine for a long time, especially patients suffering from chronic diseases.
The process is very easy. You can go on to our website, schedule your order details and get done with your entire week, month or even years of medicine needs. We assume the responsibility of delivering the products to you as per your schedule. It is a lot like subscription service.
What are the services you offer now? For instance, I want to avail your service, how can I do that?
First of all, we offer a knowledge center for people who want to understand better about healthcare and healthy living. You can read our articles and infographics and learn about nuances of healthy living, all for free.
The second aspect is convenience. If you have an internet connection, you don’t need to go to a physical pharmacy and stand in a que for purchasing anything.
You also don’t need to feel embarrassed purchasing condoms or sanitary napkins from a pharmacy, rather you could just browse through our products and order.
We have the license to sell medicines and are partners with renowned industry players, which should give you confidence in the authenticity of our products.
There are quite a few ways you can avail our services: you can call us and order, or you can login to our website, place order and checkout, or you can tell us what you need on Facebook chat. The most convenient way, however, is to upload your prescription . You can easily find the upload option on our website. Once you do that, we will call you for details and process it accordingly.
If you, however, can’t find a product you need, you can request it using our “request a product” form. We would definitely search for the product and let you know if we could find them.
How do you deliver? How long it takes to get a product after ordering on your platform. What about price?
Currently, we have a slot-based delivery system. There are three-time slots that allow our consumers flexibility. You can choose your convenient time and date of delivery. Also, you can get same day deliveries based on the time you order.
At this moment we have our own delivery channel. However, we plan to work with a third party delivery partner in the recent future in order to increase our coverage.
As for the price, our products are offered at market price, As per law, you can’t offer discounts on medicine or even charge more, so we are happy to stick to that.
What’s about your coverage, geographically? Do your service available outside Dhaka?
At this moment we are only covering Dhaka, you can consider the entire map of Dhaka where we distribute now.
We have some really interesting findings about online shopping. Initially, we thought potential customers from Gulshan, Banani will be ordering more online since they are already accustomed to e-commerce, but to our surprise, we have come to find that people from outskirts of Dhaka are ordering online in good numbers.
We are talking about places like Jatrabari, Sutrapur where it is often difficult to find a product you require in a physical store. It tells a real positive story about the future of online shopping.
For now, our service is not available outside Dhaka. Dhaka is certainly quite a big market and there are a lot to be done here. However, we have plans to cover more areas in the future.
How big is your team now? What was the team size when you started in 2015?
We started with three people, all co-founders, and now we are a team of 10 people and growing. Strategically, we prefer to, keep a low headcount. Since we are bootstrapping it always helps to keep a low burn rate.
You have a board.
There are three investors on our board,who are very renowned and experienced in their own fields. We have a six members board including three investors and three co-founders.
You have raised seed investment. How much did you raise and from whom and at what valuation?
We took around BDT 2 million seed money when we started to build the platform, test the market and create initial momentum
We’re very fortunate to have wonderful board members. The guidance and support we get from them are more valuable than the fund.
The valuation was ranged at around BDT 140-180 million.
At the moment, we are moving forward to raise another round of investment which we will disclose once the deal is done.
Tell us about your growth.
We measure growth in two metrics: sales value and engagement since we have two products in different dimensions, namely the knowledge contents and sales of products. Despite not investing significantly in marketing till now, our sales is growing at a steady rate, while our content section is experiencing up to 85% growth.
With our product till date, we have been trying to understand the market as well as educate our customers about healthcare. We are about to launch some really interesting campaigns in near future and have plans to push the growth.
Who are your target customers? How do you reach out to them? What are the channels and mediums you are using for marketing?
Our core TG is, for now, urban busy people, mostly decision makers in a household. It can be anyone in a family, male or female.
In order to reach out to them, currently we use direct phone calls, campaigns in Facebook and Google, paired with offline physical campaigns.
We work hard to interact with our customers and understand their need and problems so that we can offer a better solution.
We aim to ensure the best of quality service so that our customers become our ambassadors. Instead of spending in marketing sporadically, we believe that if we offer the best service, our customers will come to us more and refer us to others. That’s one thing we crave for.
Talk about challenges. What were the challenges you faced during early days and what are the challenges you face now that you are growing?
The current challenge is related to management and growth. Like every other startup, there is too much to do and there are limited resources to accomplish all of that. Therefore, keeping a low headcount was a difficult decision for us, although it is proving to be a good one.
Initially, when we were a smaller team, we had goals like building the platform, testing the market by making some initial sales and see how the customers behave.
We used to face challenges in terms of technical aspects, developments, designing and redesigning the right product and managing the right resource within a constrained budget. , Once we managed to get there, naturally more tasks started to come up and challenges started to become fundamentally different in nature.
Resource constraint is a reality for many startups. For now, we are trying to prioritize our tasks since there are so much to do but we can’t do all of it at once.
What do you think about competition? There are a couple of companies working with knowledge and to some extent similar service as yours.
I see competition as an opportunity because it pushes you to do more. Bangladesh as a market for online healthcare is very new and very big which makes sure that there is room for multiple players. Because of the nature of this industry, we are not worried about competition at the moment, we are rather interested in watching the market grow which eventually benefits us all.
You produce content on health and healthy living. What’s your plan with content? There are companies that produce similar content like Doctorola, Tonic, Aponjon, Rx71 and trying to monetize through ads, sms charge and some are offering it for free.
We have strategies for contents which I can’t disclose now because this in a way leads to our product roadmap. We have interesting plans for content in the coming days.
What are the future plans?
Geographical coverage-wise, as I said there are still room for growth in dhaka. We have a lot to do here before covering other parts of the country. So focus will be to ensure even better coverage and service in Dhaka.
We aim to improve our contents in several dimensions and channels, and push growth. That’s the plan for future for now.
Tell us a couple of the lessons you have learned from running an internet company in Bangladesh.
Running an internet company in bangladesh is challenging. However, the industry has made amazing progress over the last couple of years. Government is working hard on infrastructure and promoting a digital bangladesh leading to further developments from the private sector. Apart from infrastructure there are also other challenges specific to this industry.
Operating an internet company is also difficult because of the mindset of the people. People are not yet quite accustomed to buying products online, especially for the products that are very personal in nature. As customers, we still are conservative in terms of trusting an online service provider, which is gradually changing, thanks to the industry players.
There is a bigger market out there yet to be converted into online shoppers who haven’t made up their minds yet. For example, before starting Bhalo Thakun, we ran a survey among a handsome number of respondents and the market looked really rosy. However, most of the respondents were tech savvy internet users who gradually converted to become online shoppers which make the results of the survey look pretty skewed.
On the other hand, the not so tech-savvy customer or the potential customers who don’t trust an online provider yet will definitely take more time to convert. Gaining their trust with offered products is the key challenge any internet company faces.
There is a general lack of trust in the market when it comes to buying things online. Although this culture is changing but it is not there yet. People should invest more in educating users and building trust through ensuring better service for customers